In a mostly empty ninth-floor conference room on a recent Thursday evening, the civilian panel charged with investigating police misconduct in Baltimore met for its monthly meeting.
There are supposed to be nine members, but four chairs were empty — those positions have been vacant for years. Of the five positions that are filled, four of the members said they want out, having long overstayed the limits of their terms.
When the board was created more than a decade ago, boosters promised it would prove a crucial check on brutality and abusive language by police officers. Opponents called it an intrusion into departmental discipline. It proved to be neither, and members say the panel has become irrelevant, ineffective and disengaged from the public it's supposed to represent.
As the recent meeting drew to a close — less than 15 minutes after it started — member William Brent, 88, questioned the panel's existence. Brent, who has served 14 years on the panel, eight years beyond his term limit, thinks the work is important, but goes unacknowledged.
"I don't think any of those people know what we're doing, or who we are," Brent said. Other members nodded in agreement.
Baltimore's board sometimes gets cases from police after they've already been closed, and its recommendations are very rarely followed. Its investigations and the complaints it reviews are not public, and only cryptically described at meetings. Police and union officials are supposed to hold three additional nonvoting positions on the board, but haven't been coming.
"I think they're a paper tiger," City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said of the board.
Informed of the board's vacancies and complaints from its members, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told The Baltimore Sun that her staff would move to fill the vacancies. "It's critically important that we get this fixed," she said.
Civilian review boards began to emerge in cities in the early 1990s, in the wake of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles. The issue had been debated for several years before a string of police-involved shootings and a 1999 incident in which a state senator was handcuffed pushed it toward approval in the Maryland General Assembly.
It was a hard-won legislative battle, followed by months of political maneuvering over who would sit on the panel. But the fervor faded quickly, and the Baltimore board never developed the assertive role that civilian groups took on elsewhere.
In Washington, the police complaints board makes policy recommendations and has more than 20 staffers investigating misconduct. Chicago's independent police review authority analyzes police-involved shootings and posts investigative reports online.
Baltimore's new Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez, who oversees a reconstituted professional standards and accountability bureau, joined the Police Department after 27 years in Los Angeles, considered to have some of the strongest police oversight in the country. He said he is reviewing Baltimore's board with a goal of making it more relevant.
"I believe that in today's law enforcement, there is a very critical need in what we do to have civilian oversight," Rodriguez said. "I do not think the system [in Baltimore] is broken, but I think there's room for improvements."
But Sheldon Greenberg, director of the School of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University, is skeptical about the implementation and significance of civilian review. He said many cities jumped on the trend "without a real connection to a need or purpose locally."
"If you just do it because it's on the books, or because other cities are doing it, then you're just going through the process," Greenberg said. "Process without purpose is meaningless."
In Baltimore, the board has two investigators and subpoena power. Complaints have declined from 137 in 2010, to 97 in 2011, to 87 in 2012. The board's reports for the past three years show that the members voted to reverse the findings of internal affairs in 49 out of 812 — or 6 percent — of allegations reviewed by the board.
Some who have dealt with the panel say the process was confusing and got them nowhere.
In 2005, then-Johns Hopkins University student Blake Trettien said he was handcuffed by an officer who had just arrested his friend, and spent 33 hours in Central Booking before being released without charges.
Months after he filed a complaint, Trettien said the board informed him that the issue didn't fall within its jurisdiction. "I was arrested for no reason, which they said was something that they didn't deal with," said Trettien, who would write a paper about "zero tolerance" policing that helped him get into law school.
Richie Armstrong and two other men arrested in 2011 during a protest over the East Baltimore Development Inc. project said they filed complaints with the board and never heard back.
"We ended up on trial behind this, and I thought because of the magnitude there would be some steps taken, even just to get us some satisfaction that the city was concerned about the issues," Armstrong said.
"People have lost trust in the process," said Clarence Mitchell IV, the radio host who as a state senator helped spearhead the effort to create the board.
Doreen Rosenthal, a Bolton Hill activist, was the first chairwoman of the board and said the early days were exciting. Members came up with a structure and procedures, and attended training. They also hired investigators and developed a marketing plan to get the word out to citizens.
Rosenthal quickly became disillusioned. "I don't think we ever had a case that was [for something other than] abusive language," she said. "I felt like it was a waste of time."
Still, in 2009, there was still an impression that the board had power. Then-City Council President Rawlings-Blake recommended that important policy decisions, such as the Police Department's move at the time to stop releasing the names of officers who shoot citizens, be filtered through the civilian review board.
But under Mayor Rawlings-Blake, the board has languished with vacancies. Seats on the panel representing Southeast, Central, and Northern districts have been vacant for at least three years. The seat representing Northwest Baltimore is also vacant.
Rawlings-Blake said she made three appointments in 2011 — the first since the mayoral administration of Martin O'Malley — and City Council records show that they were confirmed. But they never were sworn-in. One of those appointees is expected to be re-nominated to the council at Monday's meeting.
Cherry Hill resident Cleoda Walker, the current chairwoman, says that while the board has enjoyed a good relationship with police commissioners, the department hasn't followed board recommendations when police and the board differ.
"I think two times at the most," said Walker, who has served on the board since 1999.
Walker said the board's subpoena power is used most often to obtain medical records to corroborate a citizen's claim of injuries. They also can hold "inquiry panels" and interview witnesses, though that has only happened two or three times, she said.
She believes in the work, even if it sometimes feels the board is ignored. The board makes sure that people who make complaints receive a letter letting them know how the board ruled on their cases. "At least it's something," she said.
Philip K. Eure, the executive director of Washington's Office of Police Complaints and a past president of a national organization of police civilian oversight groups, said it is key to bolster the resident members with professional staff and give them power.
His office has 22 staffers who report to a five-member board appointed by the mayor. It recently issued an 84-page annual report that criticized Police Chief Cathy Lanier for not following three of its recommendations since 2010. Citizens can file complaints with his office, with internal affairs, or with both, and he believes more complaints are filed with his office than with police.
Of Baltimore, he said: "There seems to be kind of a culture of both a lack of transparency and lack of seriousness and purpose insofar as independent police review goes."
Charlene Bourne, an East Baltimore neighborhood booster, is the only member seeking to stay on the board and hopes for changes in their role.
"I would like to see the Police Department take our board more seriously," Bourne said. "When we send something in and our finding is different than theirs, I would like to see it investigated more thoroughly."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun